Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hood Museum Stages "Hip Hop in the Hood" Event, Hilarity Ensues

Nisanth beat me to the punch—but for the benefit of everyone I'm going to go ahead and post the document that Fan had attached to her blitz.
Before I go into explaining my thought processes, I want to say that both me and the other Programming and Interpretation Intern want to say that we are sorry.

The following text comes only from my own personal experiences as an individual. I am sorry that on some level the title, “Hip Hop in the Hood” does indeed perpetuate stereotypes.

And I need to make it clear that I am speaking from my own individual experiences. I am not acting as a representative of the Hood or any other employees/students who were involved with last Friday’s event/exhibition. I can only speak about my individual role in the event planning process, but want to lend a little bit of transparency to this situation because I know that many people in the Dartmouth community are feeling hurt, confused, and very angry about the title and music selection.

I did not come up with the title, “Hip Hop in the Hood.” And I know that many negative connotations accompany both the words “hip hop” and “hood.” I did not want to reinforce preexisting stereotypes; this is actually achieved the antithesis of my original intentions.

I supported this title because I thought that it would be a great, albeit slightly controversial and provocative, way to bring mainstream cultural stereotypes of Black Womanhood to the student party to juxtapose with the art of the contemporary black female artists in the exhibitionion. The works in the exhibitionion also use those stereotypes in their artwork in order to subvert them, causing the viewer to take a second look at how black womanhood has been constructed visually throughout history.

Now I know that you’re still wondering how and why I thought I would be accomplishing these types of ends by giving the title this name and playing hip hop at the party. I want to address two main issues that very few other people know about the planning process: The PR that went out and the music that was played at the event were not what I originally envisioned throughout the planning process. Both of these things were changed at the last minute due to external pressures that were relayed to me about the controversial/offensive nature of these images/types of music might in relation to our event.

1. The Music: “Hip Hop”
By playing mainstream hip hop in the context of the “Black Womanhood” exhibition I hoped that people would recognize that black womanhood continues to be constructed in today’s culture through filters that so many of us cannot control. Misogynistic portrayals of “womanhood,” in general, and “Black womanhood,” in particular, constantly bombard us with loaded images that many of us implicitly accept as truth. But these images are constructed and often do not even originate from the mouths/pens of black women themselves.

I also intended to have a combination of socially conscious hip hop and mainstream hip hop played at the event. This would juxtapose loaded and often negative mainstream portrayals of black women with positive, empowering depictions of black womanhood.

2. The PR: Postcards of “Hip Hop in the Hood” and Maud Sulter’s Terpischore image

The final image for all the posters and postcards ended up being a powerful image, but one that is difficult to understand and is laden with many art historical allusions to the portraiture of great masters, the canon, and how black women were largely left out of this cannon.

The original image at first seemed much more inflammatory: a photo postcard image of Josephine Baker wearing little more than a banana skirt. (If you want to see it, please go to the second floor of the galleries at the Hood, turn left and go all the way to the back of the room.) In 1925, the American, Josephine Baker first performed a seductive dance in Paris which came to be known as, "La Danse de Sauvage.”
I wanted to recreate this image on a postcard because it was originally distributed on a postcard, propagating an exoticized and fetishized image of a black woman. Baker used this to propel her career, but photographers and apparently postcard manufacturers also profited from her fame which played off of and into an exotic stereotyped image of black womanhood. Her dance also is in many ways the precursor to modern hip hop dance, which is why I believe that this image would have been a more appropriate, but provocative image to place on the PR.

And I did intend to provoke. I wanted to place the stereotype in peoples’ faces so that they could look at it for what it is: a societal construction (that’s often fucked up-based on stereotypes of an exotic other). I knew that it wouldn’t reach everyone and might offend others, but an explanation would appear on the reverse side and I hoped that people would come and see what the exhibition was about--despite being offended or confused.

But we needed to change the image at the last moment because we were listening to concerns from people from the black female community on campus. The only problem was that the PR had to be produced that day, so all we had time to do was to switch the images around and leave the title, “Hip Hop in the Hood.” So that’s why we chose this title and why I do understand that it looks like we were simply trying to pursue an effective marketing scheme that played off of negative connotations and effectively used alliteration. But I am sorry because this also means that Hip Hop’s often misogynistic portrayals of black women became conflated with real definitions of “black womanhood,” as defined by the artists in the exhibition and by the everyday lives of black women at Dartmouth.

I am sorry to have caused so much pain and hurt because I personally did make a lot of decisions about how this party would be marketed to campus. And although I will never be able to truly empathize because I am not a black woman at Dartmouth, I am a minority at Dartmouth (Chinese-American). I know that it’s difficult to be here and I even know how difficult it is to confront racial stereotypes within a museum setting.

When I was learning about a past exhibition, “No Laughing Matter,” basically an exhibition of racial caricatures, I was the only person of color in the room. The curator was white and I wondered what she could possibly teach me about being a minority. I was angry and I remained quiet for a long time. But after about a week, I read the wall labels, revisited the exhibition and realized that really thoughtful, sensitive, and high-quality research went into culling out these historical images for me to learn from. And although I realized that the curator would never be able to fully empathize with me and she will never be able experience what it is like to be a minority. But she knows history.

I learned a lot from that exhibition about how racial stereotypes are perpetuated through visual culture and how racism is engrained in us through visual images. But I was also forced to take the time to process my thoughts because I was already working at the museum. I thought, wow, white, racist institution, but then realized that I was wrong, I had a lot to learn from these images and wouldn’t be learning about them if the museum didn’t exist.

I miscalculated how the PR for this party would be perceived. I had no idea that so many people would not know (and not know that I know) that “hip hop” and “hood” are laden with negative connotations. I was surprised when I learned my friends didn’t understand the negative connotations that come along with these words. This is where I believe I am the most wrong because for people who did not previously know what these words meant, I am reinforcing a stereotype.

However, despite all of this, I believe that sometimes a little bit of controversy is a good thing because it gets people talking about important issues. And the construction of identity and society’s construction of “black womanhood” are important things to be thinking about. So if I could do it all over again and change the title of the party I don’t know if I would change the title because it causes you to look at certain stereotypes at face value. The exhibition itself is not simply a celebration of black womanhood, but shows the complicated history of how black womanhood has been constructed in visual culture.

Lastly, I believe that this issue has been polarized. Many are looking at it only in terms of black and white. I hope that this very long explanation has given you a glimpse of the many variations of grey in between.

I am open to discussing this again, but only after both the meetings that will be occurring on both Thursday and Friday. Please feel free to blitz me after these events if you are still concerned and want to talk. But also know that I am human. I am exhausted and am trying my best to live my life with integrity.

Thanks for reading and Take Care,
Melissa

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